“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” What’s the problem with 1 John 1:9? The problem is that it’s in the wrong part of the Bible. It’s a classic piece of old covenant theology that somehow found its way into the new. It’s on the wrong side of the cross (see Figure). Like snow in Hawaii or Nazis on the moon, it just shouldn’t be there…
But it is there in black and white and you’re just going to have to deal with it. So how do we read 1 John 1:9 in light of the finished work of the cross? The usual way is to read it as a tiny price tag attached to the priceless gift of grace.
“If you just do this tiny thing (acknowledge your sins), a gracious and good God will do this mighty thing (forgive your sins).”
Don’t you realize how obscene this is?
If I gave you a mansion with no strings attached and you responded with, “Let me pay you with a piece of navel fluff – there, now we’re square,” I would be insulted. If you then went around telling others, “Give Paul your navel lint and he will give you mansions!” I would do a face-palm. And then I would have to bolt my door to the hoards queuing outside with handfuls of fluff!
It is ridiculous to think that you can pay God to forgive you. And yet many Christians are examining their navels for unconfessed sins because they think God is a sin-collector who trades favors for sin. Big sigh. The Creator is not some marionette you can manipulate. He is the Almighty One, the Ancient of Days who sits enthroned on high. And He dealt with your sins once and for all at the cross (see Hebrews 9-10).
So what is the right way to read 1 John 1:9?
The only right and proper way to read the written word is in light of the Living Word (that’s Jesus) and what He has done (meaning, the cross). Read the Bible indiscriminately and you’ll end up taking someone else’s medicine. You’ll be confused about everything and you’ll end up staring at your navel.
John is not preaching conditional forgiveness. He says as much in the next few verses. We are not forgiven on account of our works of confession but on “account of His name” (2:12). Only those who receive the gift of forgiveness get to call themselves “forgiven,” but the gift has been given already. On the cross the Lamb of God did away with the sins of the world (2:2).
So what’s all this business about confessing in 1 John 1:9? Why does John sound like he is quoting the Old Testament? Because he is quoting the Old Testament! John is paraphrasing an Old Testament scripture to illuminate a New Testament concept. Look at these two passages side by side and see if they resemble one another:
John is not preaching an old law (confess to be forgiven); he is using old and familiar language to describe something that would have been new and strange to his readers. In this regard he is just like Paul who quotes the exact same Psalm in Romans 4:7-8. Paul quotes Psalm 32 to show that we are blessed through faith and not works; John quotes Psalm 32 to show that we won’t be blessed except through faith. For that is what the word “confess” actually means in Greek. It does not mean review your sins. It means to agree with or say the same thing as another. Since faith is a positive response to something God has said or done, confession with the mouth is the articulation of faith in the heart.
Gifts are for those who want them
This makes perfect sense when you read the 1 John 1:9 in context. In chapter 1 John was addressing some unsaved dudes who thought they were sinless. In other words, they had a terminal case of self-righteousness. (I know it’s hard to swallow the idea that the Bible was written for non-Christians as well as Christians but it was. The good news is for everyone.) John doesn’t mince his words. He says these guys had no fellowship with God, they walked in darkness, and the truth was not in them. He was not describing Christians or the “dear children” of chapter 2.
If you are self-righteous, then you won’t see your need for the gift of His righteousness. If you think you are without sin, then you won’t see your need for the gift of His forgiveness. John writes to say, “That’s dumb – stop calling God a liar, agree with Him about your sorry sinful state, and receive His gift of forgiveness. Only those in Christ are truly sinless. Only those who trust in His grace receive the already-given gift of forgiveness.”
There is nothing wrong with 1 John 1:9. It is pure, unadulterated good news. Any problems that arise in connection with this verse stem from confusion about what makes the new covenant new. On the cross the Lamb of God carried the sins of the world. That’s what forgiveness is – it is sending your sins away. Now they are gone as far as the east is from the west.
To recap, the wrong way to read 1 John 1:9 is to think that God will forgive only those sins you for which you own up and accept responsibility. (This is nightmare theology!) The right way is to agree that the cross is the once and for time solution to all your sin. You have been eternally forgiven through the blood of the Lamb.